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DYER, JOHN (ca. 1700-1758) John Dyer was born in Dyfed, Wales. His ancestor Hugh Dyer was named by James I in the Charter of 1618 as an alderman of Kidwelly. The daughter of the first vicar of Kidwelly, Elinor, married Hugh Dyer's son, Robert. Robert eventually became the 21st mayor of Kidwelly and John Dyer's great-grandfather. Dyer did not complete his education at Westminster School and, unlike his older and younger brothers, did not go on to oxford. He returned to Aberglasney and studied law. After his father's death, he moved to London and studied painting as an apprentice to the landscape artist Jonathan Richardson. The talent he lacked on the traditional canvas emerged in his poetic landscapes. Dyer made several close friends who later became noted artists, as he continued to work at painting. one popular artist, Arthur Pond, was later referenced by Dyer in his poem "The Fleece" (1757), a work characterized by his biographer Belinda Humphrey as Dyer's "most eighteenth century poem."
Dyer traveled to Italy soon after April 1724, ostensibly to improve his painting; he copied Correggio's famous Madonna Adoring the Christ Child. More importantly, he continued to write, producing several poems including the personal "Written at Ocriculum, in Italy" (1725) in the style of John Milton's Lycidas. Dyer's religious considerations in that contemplative poem probably anticipated his later commitment to a religious life. He also continued work in Italy on a poem he had begun in Dyfed, "Grongar Hill" (1726). The first of his landscape poetry, it became his most anthologized work in the 21st century. The poem features the valley of the river Towy in Dyfed and the house of Aberglasney, which Dyer praised for their power to inspire.
After a year in Italy, Dyer appeared ready to return home. According to a letter he wrote to his mother, he had discovered "the follies of many distinctions and the greatest heights of people," his understanding of those follies allowing him to "sit me down with much ease in a very firm opinion that you are happier at Grey House than if you practiced all the formalities of greatness in courts and palaces."
Dyer split his time between Wales and London, where one of his most important city friendships was with the older poet James Thomson. As did Dyer, Thomson showed interest in local landscape poetry, evidenced in his "A Hymn on the Seasons," the first portion on winter published in 1725. While Samuel Johnson later labeled Sir John Denham's "Cooper's Hill" (1642) the first English local poetry, critics, including Humphrey, dispute that credit. They argue that Denham's description is masked by his political and moral reflections, and that even Alexander Pope's "Windsor Forest" (1713), another touted local poem, cannot compete with the geographic detail for detail's sake found in the poetry of Thomson and Dyer. The relationship of the two poets is evidenced by the only copy of a poem that Dyer wrote in Thomson's honor, probably in 1727, found in the commonplace book of their mutual patroness, the countess of Hertford. The friendship with Thomson seems to have ended a few years later when Dyer returned to the country, although he maintained contact with the countess into the next decade.
Dyer returned briefly to Aberglasney in 1727 and soon afterward apparently became estranged from his brother, Robert. He spent the next several years in London, where accounts indicate he had become wealthy, perhaps through an inheritance after his mother's death in 1735. In that year he began a poem titled "The Cambro-Briton," which would remain unfinished, and began a new project in 1737, the construction of "The Commercial Map of England." He explained his project in a letter to a friend, noting, "I am at present very unfit for Poetical subjects."
In 1738 Dyer purchased two farms at Higham on the Hill in Leicestershire, later moved two miles away to Nuneaton, and married. His 26-year-old wife, Sarah Ensor, was a widow and apparently descended from Shakespeare. Dyer would at last in 1740 publish the mainly descriptive "The Ruins of Rome," begun during his stay in Italy. It is considered less successful than his other efforts because of its generality and lack of emotion, although he wrote enthusiastically while in Italy of the art and architecture that inspired him. In 1741 he sent Pope some special stone for his Twickenham grotto, a hideaway made famous in Pope's writing.
Dyer traveled to Worcester between 1740 and 1741 to paint the portrait of Bishop Hough, a move that would change his life. There he began a serious consideration of his religious beliefs. The meditations contained in his notebook suggest he focused on the nature of morality, recording some pessimistic ideas regarding human behavior. In September 1741, he became ordained as an Anglican deacon and in October as a priest. Dyer served at Coningsby and Kirby in Lincolnshire and gave up his farms to his tenants but began learning about sheep farming at his parish. He used his experience to write four books that composed "The Fleece," all published in 1757, leaving his mapping project unfinished although it had influenced his writ ing of "The Fleece." In this, his final major work, Dyer again proved himself a landscape painter's poet, writing of British landscape and farming activities with great emotion and imagination. Humphrey describes that work as "a tapestry or living landscape of his own life." By all accounts he proved a conscientious and respected parson, remaining at the parish until his death from consumption in 1757.
William Wordsworth praised Dyer's imagination and "purity of style," comparing him quite favorably with Milton, but later generations found less to appreciate. Little critical work on his poetry exists; edited versions were published in 1770 and in 1903, and select poems are available in electronic and print form.
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